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Texas Gov. Abbott signs "Sandra Bland Act" into law

Sandra Bland. (Photo courtesy of Kee Creation for The Texas Tribune)

by Johnathan Silver | The Texas Tribune

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday signed into law a measure that seeks to address the circumstances that led to the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman found dead in a county jail days after being arrested during a routine traffic stop.

The Sandra Bland Act mandates county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment, makes it easier for defendants to receive a personal bond if they have a mental illness or intellectual disability, and requires that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths. The law takes effect Sept. 1.

The law's namesake, a 28-year-old from Illinois, died in the Waller County Jail in 2015. Her arrest followed a lengthy argument between Bland and then-Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian Encinia, which was documented by the officer's dashboard camera.

After Bland's death – which was ruled a suicide – her family, activists and lawmakers swiftly criticized the rural jail's leadership and Encinia. With a new legislative session a long way away, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards was first to offer a solution, revising the intake screening process of county jail inmates to better identify mental health issues. During the legislative session, state Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston introduced a bill named in honor of Bland. A comprehensive piece of legislation, the bill originally tackled racial profiling during traffic stops, consent searches and counseling for police officers who profiled drivers, in addition to jail reforms.

That bill didn't move out of committee because of opposition from law enforcement groups and lawmakers concerned about unfunded mandates. The Senate version of the bill, by state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, removed much of the language related to encounters with law enforcement (de-escalation training remained) and became a mostly mental health bill, which ultimately passed both chambers without opposition.

Bland's family expressed disappointment in the Senate version of the bill, calling it a missed opportunity because it removed language relevant to Bland's stop.

The bill Abbott signed Thursday increases public safety, Coleman said in a statement.

"The Sandra Bland Act will prevent traffic stops from escalating by ensuring that all law enforcement officers receive de-escalation training for all situations as part of their basic training and continuing education," he said.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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